The White House Releases National Strategy for Planetary Protection

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The National Strategy for Planetary Protection reflects the critical importance of planetary protection to the future of space science, exploration, and life on Earth. Planetary protection refers to the policy and practice of protecting future scientific investigations by limiting biological contamination of other planetary bodies through exploration activities and protecting the Earth’s biosphere by avoiding harmful biological contamination by returning spacecraft.

Mitigating the risk of harmful biological contamination of the Earth (termed “backward contamination”) and other planetary bodies (termed “forward contamination”) supports a safe, sustainable, and predictable Earth and space environment. New missions to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations are underway or under consideration by NASA, other national space programs from around the world, and the private sector.

While samples from Earth’s Moon have been deemed non-hazardous and their return to Earth has been unrestricted since 1971, both public and private entities are considering missions that would collect and return samples from other planetary bodies that have not been as thoroughly studied.

By considering the emergence of new efforts to explore and use the solar system, this strategy provides guidance to address the diverse challenges and manage any potential risk of biological contamination associated with space exploration.

Accordingly, this strategy balances United States interests in promoting scientific discovery, human exploration, and the growth of private sector space activities, all with due consideration for public safety and applicable obligations.

The United States intends to remain a leader in the development of internationally accepted policies and practices addressing planetary protection.

The National Strategy for Planetary Protection is an important implementation step under the 2020 National Space Policy; specifically, “the development of national and international planetary protection guidelines, working with scientific and commercial partners, for the appropriate protection of planetary bodies and Earth from harmful biological contamination.”

Continued implementation of this directive will require updating United States department and agency roles and responsibilities, providing authorization and continuing supervision of private space activities, maintaining international leadership, and encouraging the development of innovative technologies and processes that reduce the costs of planetary protection.

The strategy sets forth three overarching objectives corresponding to forward contamination, backward contamination, and private sector coordination:
Objective 1: Avoid harmful forward contamination by developing and implementing risk assessment and science-based guidelines and updating the interagency payload review process.

Objective 2: Avoid backward contamination by developing a Restricted Return Program to protect against adverse effects on the Earth environment due to the potential return of extraterrestrial life.

Objective 3: Incorporate the perspective and needs of the private sector by soliciting feedback and developing guidelines regarding private sector activities with potential planetary protection implications.

Efforts to meet these objectives and to develop the national planetary protection action plan will be coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and National Space Council (NSpC) staff, in close cooperation with appropriate Federal departments and agencies, to ensure continued United States leadership in safe and responsible scientific discovery, human exploration, and private sector space activities.

Reference: “National Strategy for Planetary Protection” by The White House National Space Council, December 2020.PDF

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